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From the field

Builders of Zion: Human Rights Violations of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories Working in Israel and the Settlements

Builders of Zion, Summary

Job-related emigration occurs worldwide: people move from poor countries with high unemployment to developed countries, seeking work and greater income. Much of the labor force in West Europe, North America, and Australia is composed of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and East Europe. According to estimates of the International Labor Organization, West Europe alone currently has some nine million foreign workers, employed mostly in construction, agriculture, and services, in addition to some thirteen million dependents who accompanied them. Their inferior political, economic, and social status makes them constantly subject to discrimination and exploitation. 

Although the term "foreign workers" in Israel is used to refer to temporary immigrants who began to arrive in the 1990s (primarily from East Europe and East Asia), the phenomenon actually dates back to the start of the occupation, when Palestinians from the Occupied Territories came to work in Israel. These workers were motivated by the same factors that motivated, for example, Turkish workers to move to Germany, or Mexicans to the United States. So, too, are the exploitation and distress they have suffered similar.

However, two characteristics distinguish Palestinians from the Occupied Territories working in Israel from foreign workers in Europe or North America, and even from the other foreign workers in Israel. First, most of the workers from the Occupied Territories return at the end of the workday to their homes in the Occupied Territories. This is significant. The personal tragedy resulting from emigration under difficult conditions faced by many families of foreign workers, is not a feature in the case of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. Also, Palestinian workers have not contributed to the creation of enclaves of poverty, with all that entails, in Israel's major cities.

Second, the phenomenon of Palestinian workers in Israel resulted from a prolonged occupation that is still in force, and has as its background a lengthy ethnic-nationalistic struggle, whose last major manifestation was the intifada. This battle has been characterized, in part, by extensive and intense oppression of the Palestinians by Israel and by Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens, even after the Intifada ended. This history has led to a worse and more complex situation for Palestinian workers in Israel than for other foreign workers. In other words, the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel's occupation in particular, rapidly affected the situation of workers from the Occupied Territories. This change has occurred in addition to the other economic and political variables affecting the development of Israeli and Palestinian societies and the situation of foreign workers.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as expressed in the Oslo Accords, has led in several areas to a significant decrease in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights in the Occupied Territories.  The principal reason for this improvement is the reduction in daily contact between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian population following the IDF's withdrawal from Palestinian population centers. However, Israeli policy did not change. 

The situation of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories employed in Israel and the settlements is one area in which there has not been significant improvement since the peace process began. Most violations that occurred prior to the Oslo Accords in the area of social rights and terms of employment, and violations committed by the security forces also continued afterwards. In some aspects, the situation even worsened.

This report is neither a historical survey of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements, nor a historical survey of the violation of the rights of Palestinian workers since the occupation began. The objective of the report is to describe the current status, as far as possible, of the nature and scope of the principal human rights violations of workers from the Occupied Territories. Although the report is comprehensive, it does not claim to cover all problems and violations. Subjects such as safety at the work-site and relation of the Palestinian unions to Israeli employers and the Histadrut labor union are not discussed.